Gladiators would salute the Emperor before competing with the expression: “We who are about to die, salute you!”
It is now commonplace in film and popular culture to show gladiators lining up in the arena and addressing the Emperor with a salute: “We who are about to die, salute you.”
It has become an iconic phrase that enstills upon the gladiator a sense of honour and of duty, as well as a sense of foreboding; but is there any ancient evidence that this is what gladiators would say before combat?
The phrase, slightly modified in the modern English quote, does have a clear and direct ancient counterpart given to us in Latin by Suetonius (Claudius 21):
morituri te salutant!
Literally translated this would be, “Those who are going to die salute you.” Cassius Dio records a similar version in Greek, which uses the first person plural for the verb, giving us the more recognisable start to the translation: “We”.
The occasion being described here was actually an unusual one. The Emperor Claudius wanted to host a mock naval-battle on Fucine Lake, with 100 ships manned by condemned criminals. One side represented the Rhodians, the other side represented the Syracusans. Before the battle, we are told, they all stood before the Emperor and spoke these immortal words.
Our two main sources for this expression, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, give slightly different accounts. Suetonius says that Claudius gave a rather ambiguous response that was misinterpreted by the combatants (Claudius 21):
[Claudius] replied, “Or not”, and after that all of them refused to fight, maintaining that they had been pardoned.
They were of course incorrect, and were forced to fight nontheless. Cassius Dio does not give as much detail, he just tells us that their salute did not save them from the battle and that they were made to fight all the same. Both versions suggest, in their own way, that the expression was not so much one of salutation but rather a plea to save them from imminent death. Claudius’ refusal is either charaterised as a humorous error on his part – accidently offering pardon – or simply as a cold rejection.
The issues with the evidence
There are a few issues with this evidence. The first is that this is the only time we read of this phrase being used in a combat sport spectacle such as this. We do not see it repeated anywhere else, which on its own challenges the idea that this was a commonly used expression. Rather notably, a third source also gives details about the mock naval battle. In his Annals, Tacitus describes the combat as such (12.56):
A battle was fought with all the courage of brave men, though it was between condemned criminals.
Tacitus’ details about the battle are in keeping with Suetonius and Cassius Dio generally, but he does not describe any salute to the Emperor.
The second issue is that the people saying this phrase were not in fact gladiators: they were katadedikasmenoi or condemned criminals (Cassius Dio 61.33.3). As they had already been sentenced to death, their demise was an inevitability and their salute/plea reflects that status. The same was not true of many gladiators. It was not assumed that all gladiators would die, or indeed that gladiatorial fights would often end in the death of one of the combatants.
There is however evidence of an oath taken by gladiators when they first enlisted, which offers an echo of this willingness to fight to the death mentality (Seneca, Letters 37.1-2):
“Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword.” From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood
This oath is also alluded to in Petronius’ Satyricon 117. This is perhaps the closest example of a gladiatorial expression that comes close to the modern interpretation of the salute.
It is very plausible that gladiators would have recognised the presence of the Emperor if he was there in the arena, but there is no evidence of this happening.
While the famous expression does appear in our ancient evidence it is not in the context of a gladiatorial bout. It was spoken by a collective of condemned men, in a very unique set of circumstances. To presume that this was a wide-spread practice is misguided.
It is for these reasons that we have judged this claim as mostly false.
- Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (2020).
- Jerry Toner, The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (2015).
- Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (2012).